Documentaries are supposed to be boring. Old people sitting in front of a camera talking about events we didn’t care to learn about when they really happened. Documentaries are supposed to be educational, enlightening even. Something your teacher makes you watch in class or your grandmother tapes on the History Channel onto VHS. Academy Award winner Brigitte Berman (1985’s Artie Shaw: Time Is All You’ve Got) sticks within this formula however to create a genuinely interesting and entertaining, yet shallow film about the life of Hugh Hefner and his Playboy Magazine. Hit the jump for my full review.
Berman stays within the constraints of a typical documentary structure, following Hefner’s story from his mid-20s to today. We see that Hefner starts the magazine as a sort of guidebook for men who Hefner finds cool, sort of what GQ is today. By purchasing and republishing a rare nude photo of Marilyn Monroe for his first issue, Hefner’s Playboy Magazine quickly becomes a hit. He uses the nude photos to draw people in, but you can tell his real aim in the magazine is in the articles and the lifestyle Hefner hopes to publicize. This “lifestyle” spread to television where his “Playboy’s Penthouse” show featured performers and guests of all races, a rarity in that time. Hefner appears as a 1950s version of Jay Gatsby, mingling with interesting people, chatting with famous performers and smoking his signature pipe.
Hefner’s magazine becomes a hit as we all know and eventually his operation movies from a swanky mansion in Chicago to a swankier mansion in Los Angeles. Along the way we hear about the man from a variety of speakers from celebrities Gene Simmons and Jim Brown to activists like Jesse Jackson to unfamiliar close personal friends and coworkers. Other than one feminist commentator, everyone is really complimentary about Hefner and we get the impression that he’s an all-American boy.
The greatest strength and weakness of the film is how unchallenging it is. The movie is fluff, albeit interesting fluff. I learned a great deal about the bright side of Hugh Hefner that I never would have known, from his support of the civil rights movement to his advocating for free speech. But the film is also so busy canonizing the man that it turns a blind eye to many of Hefner’s greatest shortcomings. For instance, we learn at the beginning of the film that Hefner worked at a children’s magazine and had a wife and children. We then learn that Hefner was unhappy with his job and he decided to dedicate himself to starting a magazine for men that would consume the next 50+ years of his life. This family is never mentioned again for the rest of the film. We are supposed to be so blindsided by Hefner’s creativity and passion in creating Playboy that we forget about his family that he leaves behind. I don’t mean this as a critique of Hefner, but rather it is frustrating that Berman didn’t bother to include one sentence in the film explaining what happened. If anyone would have bothered to ask Hefner, he would’ve answered candidly and we could’ve seen an interesting side of the man that we never get to see. I also would’ve liked to see an extended argument against Hefner’s actions so as to put everything else into context and allow me to judge the man for myself. By the end of the movie, you forget that Hefner profits from taking pictures of young naked women all while living a life of incredible indulgence with numerous younger “girlfriends”.
All of that being said, because the film chooses to ignore looking at Hefner through any sort of negative light (except for the token feminist who is interviewed who unsurprisingly is not a Hefner fan), the film is incredibly entertaining, and not in the sense that one might expect. The life we see Hefner lead is a lot more how I would imagine “The Most Interesting Man In The World” or the Old Spice Guy live then how I would imagine Hefner lives: his life is so much more than beautiful naked women. From his early editorials “The Playboy Philosophy” to his television show “Playboy’s Penthouse”, we see that Hefner’s life is so much cooler then we ever realized. He loves jazz and cinema, he can debate politics with the best of them and he wants to change the way Americans view sex. He was even heavily influential in the changing of many laws, from those against sodomy to those that allowed the USPS to refuse to mail “crude” images. But I should rap this up before I start to sound too much like the film I criticized earlier.
The bottom line is that this film is incredibly entertaining and interesting, albeit fairly one-sided. I feel like I know much more about Hefner, but I can’t shake this feeling that I would’ve liked to hear a little more of the other side of the story.
As a little bonus, check out a song from Hefner’s “Playboy’s Penthouse” TV show: